CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon headed for driver introductions before a recent race, fighting his way through a throng of fans.
Joining the other drivers, he looked for a friendly face and sat down next to Ricky Craven behind the stage, laughing and joking before it was time to go to work.
For seven years, Gordon was never alone when he made this trip.
His wife, Brooke, was by his side. He usually held hands with the former Miss Winston model as they chatted in the staging area, smiling as cameras clicked away.
Now, Gordon is on his own, involved in a high-profile divorce that has made as many headlines as his recent racing accomplishments.
It has given critics of the four-time Winston Cup champion a ready-made reason for his disappointing start in defending last season's title. He heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend eighth in the points standings with just one top-five finish for the season.
The former golden boy is not paying attention to the tabloids and the gossip -- something he learned early in his career.
''My situation gives people an instant, easy excuse to point to for why I'm off to a slow start,'' Gordon said, lounging on the black leather couch in the back of his trailer, still wearing his flame-colored firesuit as the hum of a truck race almost drowned out his voice.
''If I wasn't going through this situation, then people wouldn't accuse me of not being focused on my job. When you get in the race car and you put that helmet on and you fire up the engine, you really don't have a choice but to be focused.
''I think that's one thing I've always been good at, whatever is going on in my life. ... I am able to do a pretty good job of putting it in the back of my mind.''
By almost anyone else's standards, this season would not be so bad. He was running up front until he wrecked at Daytona and Darlington and spun out at Bristol. And he drives a Chevrolet, the only one of the four makes yet to win this year, prompting manufacturer complaints of an aerodynamic disadvantage.
But Gordon, with 58 career wins and more than $47 million in prize money, is not supposed to go 16 races without a victory -- a streak dating to last season -- and he's expected to finish in the top 10 every week.
Therefore, critics say, his divorce must be the first real speedbump the 30-year-old driver has faced in his decade of Winston Cup racing.
''People don't understand that every once in a while, things are going to happen in my life just like everybody else, because I'm human,'' he said. ''Because of being in the public eye for what I do for work, when things happen to me in my personal life, it's going to make news.''
For much of his career, Gordon wasn't just like everybody else.
He was too young, too handsome and too smart when he broke into Winston Cup at the age of 21 in 1992. Born in California and raised in Indiana, he didn't have the Southern background of most of his peers, didn't come up in the same ranks, didn't talk in a thick drawl.
Fans instantly hated him.
It didn't help that he was so good, winning his first race at 22 and his first title at 24 -- making him the youngest Winston Cup champion ever. He doesn't understand cars, competitors said, and anyone could win with his equipment.
Finding friends was not easy for ''The Kid.'' Earning respect was harder.
He met Jennifer Brooke Sealey, accepting a trophy from her in Victory Lane at Daytona. They saw each other secretly for a season -- her contract as Miss Winston prohibited her from dating drivers -- and married in 1994, a year before his first title.
They were NASCAR's superstars, appearing in commercials and magazines together. Brooke walked him to his car, was by his side in the winner's circle, was photographed as much as he was, and received just as many autograph requests as he did.
''Brooke and I had a high profile relationship and we had to,'' he said. ''We got a lot of attention and we had to adjust our lives and what we did and how we went about it because of that.''
When the fame got to be too much, they fled Charlotte -- the hub of NASCAR -- for a private life in Florida. There, he could slip on shorts and a baseball cap and go out for a quiet dinner with his wife.
But they were isolated in Florida and had only each other to fall back on. And his rising status in NASCAR made him standoffish and reclusive.
Gordon won't say why his marriage failed, but if there was a beginning to the end, it might have been that move in 1997.
''Moving to Florida, it was me and Brooke, we had no friends, no family,'' he said. ''We moved away from our relationships and maybe we were a little guarded, we didn't open ourselves up to any new friends.
''Life has been good and I've been able to experience a lot of great things. But I do feel like I maybe have not been able to be myself. I had this perfect reputation and maybe I was trying to live up to that and wouldn't show that I was human.''
With his private life now very public, Gordon's human side is slowly emerging. Some of it is out of his control, leaking out through court documents that show the potential for a nasty dissolution of the couple's marriage.
In filing for divorce, Brooke Gordon asked for exclusive use of their $9 million oceanfront home, alimony, two cars and periodic use of their boats and airplane. She also wants him to continue to pay the salaries of their housekeepers, maintenance workers and chef, and her legal bills.
Gordon countersued, saying he should not have to split the estate equally because he risked his life to acquire it through his hazardous profession, and he asked for a larger share of the assets.
Brooke Gordon's lawyer, Jeff Fisher, responded by calling the driver ''selfish and arrogant'' for claiming he deserved more because of his job.
''The element of risk is irrelevant,'' Fisher said last week when Gordon countersued. ''It's his choice of career.''
Brooke Gordon and Fisher declined to comment for this article.
Jeff Gordon said the court papers painted an incorrect picture that the split is not civil.
''I love Brooke to death, I always will. She's been my best friend for eight years,'' he said. ''I don't like what we're going through, but I want it to come out with us being friends in the end.
''Unfortunately, you get lawyers involved and things can be a little ugly. ... To me, this is not about winning or losing, it's about moving on from the lives we had together.''
So that's what Gordon is trying to do.
Regulars in the garage area have found him to be looser this season, a little more open. Gordon explains it as ''coming out of my shell.''
For years, Gordon refused to get too close to competitors, fearing it would be awkward if there was an on-track problem. But since word of his divorce spread last month, he's found more than one open door in the motorhome lot.
And he's repairing the friendships he ignored during his marriage.
''I feel like one thing I neglected over the last few years was friends I had for a long time or friends that I could have had, and even my family to some extent,'' he said. ''I had a good life, one that was fulfilling in a lot of ways.
''But to be happy and balanced long term, I didn't feel like I had that, and I'm trying to fix that now.''
He's also trying to get his season on track. He finished second in Texas, then won the pole last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. But he was hampered at Martinsville by a blown tire, then lost his power steering, and it required determination from him and his team just to finish 23rd.
''We've been struggling, we really have, but this team works so hard, and to finish a race like that just shows how strong we are,'' Gordon said. ''We just have to keep digging. We're in a hole, but it's not one so deep that we can't get out of it.
''And winning cures everything.''
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